Today I shipped a copy of my new book SECOND CHANCES to an inmate in prison. Seems that someone cared enough about this man to want to send him a Christmas present – the gift of potential – the gift of how to turn Adversity into Opportunity – the gift of how to change your life.
As I packaged the book for shipment, it caused me to reflect on my first (and thank God only) Christmas in prison. It’s been 15 years now and yet I can vividly remember that time and the strong emotions I was feeling as Christmas approached. All to often we can get caught up in the wrongs that folks have done (and, yes I was a wrong-doer) and we lose track of the tragedy that all face when dealing with the consequences of the choices we make. Here in 2010 Bernie Madoff’s son Mark is just another example of the pain and brokenness that all who are associated with bad choices experience.
For those who cling to self-righteous judgment, allow me this moment to share my experience – to give my readers a brief glimpse or view into the inside of prison at Christmas…
On Christmas morning, my first and, as I thought, hopefully my last in prison, I lay in my bed feeling an aching in my chest. The pain was not from a physical ailment. Rather, the pain was an emotional ache that hurt to the very core of my soul, perhaps more deeply than any physical pain I ever experienced before. Although Christmas was my favorite time of year, this year it was the most painful time, and I was not alone in those thoughts. By this time, Buck and I had developed a close bond. Even he found Christmas morning difficult, and he had seen six of them come and go before I got there. I couldn’t imagine what that was like.
Five hundred men in this prison facility and on Christmas day, most of them would shed a tear. Being in prison doesn’t make anyone immune from pain and loss. On days like today, it magnifies the pain and loss. Just like them, as I lay motionless in my top bunk bed, I found myself thinking with tears streaming down my face. I cannot, to this day, say why the thought came to mind, but it made a powerful impression. It seemed that this “learning laboratory” had the tendency to teach at a rapid rate. At least, it did for me.
I recalled one evening, sometime back in the mid-eighties, standing in the checkout line at the grocery store I frequented in my former hometown. At that time, I was in my mid to late twenties and had a budding career. Now, I must admit, I thought that was an odd thing to recall on Christmas morning in prison, but this is what came to mind. Looking back, there was clearly a reason. The memory was crystal clear. I had walked into the store quickly to buy some steak and shrimp, having told my wife I would pick up some on my way home. We were to grill out that night, and I knew it would save her a trip. Little did I know that something so simple would provide such a profound lesson. Frankly, I had forgotten the experience until that day─Christmas morning in 1995. As I entered the checkout line, the clerk, a female around my age, spoke to me.
“Chuck Gallagher. You’re Chuck Gallagher.”
“Yes.” Somewhat startled, I responded tentatively, realizing I had no idea who this person was and how she knew me. Here I was, standing in my suit, having just finished a workday at the office, and now I was being identified by a stranger at the grocery store.
“I’m Suzie,” she said, as if I should know her. I did catch her name as it was on the badge she wore on her grocery store smock. Even though she knew me, for the life of me, I had no clue who she was. Not only did I not know her name, but her face was also unfamiliar. While I tried not to show my unfamiliarity, my face must have given it away.
“We went to high school together,” she exclaimed, as if that should somehow jog my memory. “I read about you often in the paper. You seem to be doing so well.” Noticing my wedding ring, she then asked, “Do you have any children?”
“Yes, one,” I replied, smiling at her as I acknowledged her obvious warmth. I was just trying to be nice and carry on conversation, even though inside I just wanted to check out and move on. Then I asked what, in retrospect, was a dangerous question, “Do you?”
Little did I know that those simple two words would change the course of this unexpected visit. With my question she responded, “Yes, three.” And with that, she stopped the process, even though we were in the express lane. She reached under the counter, removed her pocketbook, and proceeded to take out her wallet, wherein she had two pictures each for three children─and that was just the beginning.
Standing there, I could tell that the people in line were perturbed at her for the lengthy explanation and at me for even asking. Frankly, I wasn’t excited either. I didn’t remember her and I was just being nice. In reality, I just wanted to get out the door and get home. As she began to wind down, I knew not to ask any further questions.
“It’s so good to see you,” she said as she handed me the receipt for my purchases. “Maybe we’ll see each other again sometime.” I smiled and quickly walked away.
As I walked to the Mercedes I was then driving, I gloried in self-righteous thoughts. How important I was. She had read about me in the paper. I was ‘somebody.’ All of this time away from high school and the highest rung of the ladder she had aspired to was a check-out chick at the local grocery store. That thought was judgmental, ugly, and turned out to be profound.
Yet, on that Christmas day, 1995, as I lay on my top bunk, my thoughts drifted back to that incident. I couldn’t even remember her name, yet, in my mind’s eye, I vividly saw her with her family on this Christmas day. No doubt she and her husband shared joy as their children squealed with delight over the meager gifts Santa left. Most of the time you can’t get kids out of bed, but on Christmas morning they won’t stay in bed. The joy and love you feel as a parent, seeing those tiny little eyes light up as they experience Christmas, is hard to describe. That feeling is one I ached to have there in prison on Christmas morning. I imagined seeing her as she prepared their Christmas meal. As their energy began to wane, she would hold her children in her arms and tell them that she loved them. As I lay there, I imagined her gently stroking their heads as they struggled to keep their eyes open, fearing they might miss something. Gently, they would fall asleep in her arms.
All those thoughts passed as I noticed the wetness of the pillow against my cheeks. She was home with her little ones. She was more of a “somebody” than I had ever dreamed of being. She was there, and I was in prison.
As the thought passed, I knew there were still choices to make. I could wallow in self-pity, or make a choice that would brighten my day and perhaps the day of others. A part of me longed to continue feeling sorry for myself, but I chose to move past it. With that, I got up and stood in the phone line. Most of the time there wasn’t a line for the pay phone, but today, Christmas day, there was a long one. So I waited.
I waited my turn in order to make a three-minute collect call to my children. Hearing their voices on the phone, I choked back my emotion and with the most cheer I could muster I said, “Rob – Alex, Merry Christmas boys – this is Dad.”
15 years later my sons are grown men, yet I never forget the loss I felt the Christmas of 1995. Christmas is not about the gifts, the carols, the outer trappings that merchants wish to lure you in with. Rather, Christmas is about sharing the deep and abiding love of God that is indwelling in each of us with others. So where ever you are, what ever you do, make sure to take some time to reflect on who is important in your life and how you can bring love and light to them – even if it’s in the darkest of prisons.